Tuesday, 22 April 2008

What is happening to the weather?

Of late, the weather has become one of the major topics of conversation. Why? Well after some nice warm weather - high 10s and low 30s when my nephews visited, it has gone bizarre. We have had day after day of strong winds. Branches have blown off trees, the sand of the Sahara has blown in the windows meaning I had to sweep the floors as they had a brown coating, traffic lights have been turned sideways sand and grit managed to get under my sunglasses and irritate my eyes while I walked home. This while my sunglasses are quite tightly fitted to my face. Along with the wind has been rain storms, loud enough to wake me during the night, and creating rivers of water down the streets. Then there has been the thunder and lightning, something not seen often here and it has been cold. Almost as cold as it was in the middle of Winter. Of course, the central heating in my apartment block was finished a couple of months ago.

However, relief is in sight with temperatures later in the week getting up to the mid-twenties. The wind has dropped but it is still windier than normal. the trouble with the wind is that more people seem to be sick and not as easygoing. Small incidents become large upsets and responses are often more curt. As a teacher my patience is not as good as it should be while the students are much more impatient. Then again, maybe it is tiredness and a long school year with not many holidays. Only six more days before the Year 12 students start exams.

Hoping for blue skies and sunshine. (Maybe my Vitamin D levels are low!)

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

To the Med

Last weekend I headed north to the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. First was the picturesque drive through the Rif Mountains to Tetouan. Past a patchwork of green fields, mosque minarets in all sorts of colours spiralling skyward and a mixture of flat-roofed houses and ones with corrugated, gabled roofs. Patches of bare rock dominated some of the mountain tops, with their similarity to southern Spain providing clear evidence of a similar geological history.

What was amazing was the huge amount of construction occurring - more resorts and apartment blocks. Mostly white they give a Mediterranean feel against the backdrop of the green mountains. New earth-moving machinery was everywhere - front-end loaders, dump trucks and cement trucks. The coast between Tetouan and Ceuta will be unrecognisable from one week to the next.

I spent part of one day wandering the fairways of the Royal Golf course at Cabo Negro.With lots of long grass and bare patches, the fairways weren't in the best condition, however the view from a hill-top on one of the back nine fairways made it all worthwhile. Mind you it was a pleasant walk with blue skies overhead and a gentle breeze.

Staying at the Sofitel at Marina Smir was a luxury that I don't normally indulge in. From the balcony were views across the swimming pool, tennis court and garden to the beach and the Mediterranean. Not hot enough for a dip in the pool or sea it was very pleasant sitting under an umbrella by the pool reading. I certainly needed the relaxation. But the highlight for me was the buffet breakfast - fruits, cheeses, omelettes, pancakes and even hot chocolate! With such a feed, only one other meal was necessary.
The Sofitel
The trip back was made even faster with the recent opening of the motorway to Tangier Port, which is only about 20 km from Ceuta. From the road winding around the coast, there was a nice view across Ceuta. We decided not to go there as with some of us leaving and some just visiting, shopping was not high on anyone's list. Plus it takes a while to get through immigration, since Ceuta is Spain. At the late lunch stop in Asilah, we tried to sample the seafood at the well-known restaurant Garcias, but no reservation, no table. Instead we found another restaurant nearby and sat on the footpath still sampling local fish dishes. It was amazing the number of tourists in Asilah, which is pretty normal for the weekend I believe.
I came back feeling rested and relaxed; at least for a few days!

Friday, 11 April 2008

Among the Righteous

A few weeks ago for one of the book groups I belonged to we discussed the book, Among the Righteous by Robert Satloff. It appealed for two reasons. First it focused on the Jews of North Africa, and second, Robert Satloff lived in Rabat for a about a year and was known to some of the book group members.

The book focused on the search for Arabs in North Africa who had in some way given protection to or rescued the Jews of North Africa during the Holocaust. With my limited knowledge of European and African history, the first third of the book related the history of these areas, the intertwining of it in relation to and prior to the Holocaust. I did not know that Nazi Germany, Vichy France and Fascist Italy penetrated so far into Africa and with such effect. They took away the civil rights of the Jews, confiscated their property, restricted their movement, used them as slave labour and imprisoned them in concentration camps. For me, I had know idea of this French attitude, which seems contradictory when France at the time took on Morocco as a protectorate.

A number of the concentration camps and much of the slave labour was involved in the building of a railway line across the Sahara. The author managed to visit (in the early 2000s) the remains of some of these camps, come railway stations, in Morocco close to the Algerian border. Some of our book group members thought this would be an interesting visit to try and undertake today.

Next the book focused on the author's search for Arabs who had aided, protected and rescued North African Jews, and a difficult search it was. It seemed that Arabs either did not know about their families earlier involvement in this area or did not want to broadcast their involvement in it.

However he did succeed finding a family that hid Jews on their farm, while some Jews got false identity papers at the Grand Mosque in Paris. What I found saddest though was prior to the time of the Holocaust, the Jews in Tunisia were given French citizenship with many joining the French Army. Yet when Tunisia was invaded by Vichy France their citizenship was revoked with the Jews becoming the enemy of France.

The result was that a once large and important part of North Africa's population has now dwindled to a tiny number. Recently I was told there is one Jewish family remaining in Fes. The synagogues and Jewish cemeteries may remain but those to support, maintain and use them do not.

Among the Righteous was an interesting and eye-opening tale, but not one that kept me riveted.

Monday, 7 April 2008


When I visited Marrakesh, along with my nephews, two weeks ago I would have to agree that it is certainly the peak tourist time. Even during the day the Djemma el-Fna was packed. That is not something I have seen before. While wandering in the medina were lots of tour groups. Hopefully all these visitors and the money they bring in is providing some spin offs to the local Moroccans.Whilst there we visited the normal tourist haunts, the Saadien Tombs - it sure is hard to believe they were "forgotten" about for a few hundred years; the ruins of the Badi Palace, the wonderful architecture and craftsmanship on display in the Bahia Palace, the Marrakesh Museum and the stunningly beautiful Ali ben Youssef Medersa. I find the carved white plasterwork, the contrasting dark brown cedar wood and the small arched windows that overlook the central courtyard a photographer's delight. So of course, I took just a few more photos! (There is one below.) Best of all is the cheap entrance fee, 10 Dirham per place except for the medersa, museum and quobba which cost 60 dirham for the three. Still cheap though.As I hadn't been before, one of the highlights was a visit to the colourful Majorelle Gardens, just outside the walls of the medina. Here electric blue combines with buttercup yellow and leaf green on the painted buildings, window frames, pots and fountains contrast with the dull green of the dominant cacti in the garden and the crimson of the cascading bougainvillea. There is also a small museum, which includes some lovely art works by the garden's designer, Jacques Majorelle, along with Berber jewellery, textiles and carpets. Mind you the 30 dirham entrance fee to the garden and an extra 15 to the museum make a visit expensive by Moroccan standards, however it is a place of calmness, shade and serenity, thus providing respite from the hustle and bustle outside. Once owned by Yves St. Laurent who has a house next door, I believe it has recently been returned to the people of Marrakesh. Here are a few photos (I did take quite a lot!).

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Back to Fes

No visit to Morocco is complete with a visit to the ancient city of Fes, so I took my nephews there for a weekend experience. Again I stayed with the wonderful Josephine at Dar El Hana again, where she and cook Fatima had a wonderful meal awaiting when we arrived about 9 pm. We had to catch the train from Rabat after I finished work, hence the late arrival. Four courses we feasted on: first Harira followed a number of cooked salads then the main course a Fatima creation joking called "Chin Wah" chicken where Moroccan cuisine gains a Chinese flavour. A chicken cooked with noodles flavoured with finely sliced olives and chilli. It certainly made a nice change from couscous, which I am not a fan of, and tagine, which we had had twice a day for most of the previous week when travelling around the south. To finish off we had home-made orange cake containing orange rind, just like my mother makes, which was served with fresh strawberries.
The Blue Gate
In an effort to ensure my nephews learned more of the history and architecture of Fes than what I new, and hopefully I would learn something to (I did!) I organised a guide through Josephine. So in three hours we went from Bab Boujloud, the Blue Gate, to the tanneries. We visited the Medersa Bouinania, which I hadn't been to before. It had some wonderful craftmanship on display: carved plasterwork, painted cedar ceilings, detailled zellij or mosaics and some nice stained glass windows in the women's section.
Above: the Medersa Bouinania
We peeked into the Moulay Idriss Mausoleum because as non-muslims we could not enter, looked at the attractive entrance to the Nejjarine Complex and passed the Qaraouiyine Mosque, which we could also not enter. In between were the narrow of often dark alleys of the souks bordered by small shops with colourful carpets piled high, blue and white Fes pottery stacked high, colourful spices piled high into perfect cones and a rainbow of djellebahs hanging from overhanging verandahs.The finale, and probably the highlight for the boys was the tanneries. The large semi-circular pits we looked down on were filled with red, yellow, brown and maroon. The dye pits, using natural dyes are used to colour the animal skins - sheep, goat or cattle. In the background are the white pits where the skins are soaked to remove the wool and hair.

We spent one of our days while in Fes taking a grand taxi to the Roman ruins and mosaics of Volubulis. With this being my third visit to Volubulis and second to Meknes, the highlight of the day for me was the visit to the revered town of Moulay Idriss. Here is Morocco's only cylindrical mosque minaret, dark green and covered in Arabic text from the Koran. Also here is the Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss, again it can only be glimpsed by non-Muslims. But good views of the mausoleum and picture postcard views of the symmetrical white-washed town on the hill I did get to see.

Moulay Idriss above, below the cylindrical minaret

While there I heard about a village south of Fes where people live in caves and the women sit out the front making djellebah buttons. It certainly sounds interesting but will have to wait for another visit.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Desert, Gorges and Kasbahs

While taking my nephews on a trip exploring some of Morocco's highlights we covered the traditional tourist circuit from Marrakesh to Dades and Todra Gorge, to the desert of Erg Chigaga and back to Marrakesh. With quite a few other stops along the way.

Back to Dades Gorge for my third visit, it was too windy to do the circuit walk up the side gorge so instead we drove to the end of the road for normal vehicles. To travel further 4WD is needed. The switchback road to travel from the base of the gorge up to the clifftop was amazing and is shown in the photo below. We passed villages merging with the earthen colour of the cliffs. While beside the river were a patchwork of green, barley and other crops interspersed with the pink blossom covered peach trees, the light green of the almond trees and the bare brown branches of the walnuts. The gorges remained one of the Moroccan highlights for my nephews visit.
The weather also impacted on our desert visit as a sand storm blew and blew and blew, not blindingly but enough to stop our camel trip into the desert where we were to sleep on the sand, under a Berber tent and marvel at the stars overhead (although there is still not as many as in the southern hemisphere though). Instead we spent the late afternoon and evening lazing around in an Auberge bordering the desert, while the windows rattled. We did get out to see the stars, and the nearby lake, late in the evening after dinner. We returned to the sound of beating drums and singing as some of the locals entertained the other stranded visitors. Not to miss out completely, my nephews did get a camel ride into the desert for sunrise next morning. it wasn't great due to clouds low on the horizon. As I've already been on numerous camel rides, I decided bed was a better option.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

A short hike in the mountains

Towards the end of our trip around the south we did an overnight hike in the High Atlas mountains as I thought my nephews would enjoy the walk and the stay in the Berber house overnight. We left Imlil mid-afternoon and walked for about 3 hours, mostly up but the last half hour down to Tinegherine. On the way up, we did manage to see a few shepherds herding their sheep on the hillside. It was a bit of a grey day though as can be seen in the photos.
Along the way be passed cherries trees covered in white blossom, terraced fields filled with bright green onions and the odd peach tree with pink blossom. It is too high and cold for peach trees to do well.Reaching the village we found our home for the night, a typical rectangular, earthen house built on the side of the mountain to face the sun. We soon observed its excellent insulation properties as the night got colder and colder. For a change from the endless diet of tagines, we even had spaghetti for dinner cooked by muleteer come cook (who was also our host), Hussein.
After an early night we woke to the eerie sight of white: trees branches covered in white, the once green onion fields had now become covered in white. It had snowed overnight while we slept.
Not to be daunted we spend just over 4 hours heading around and down the mountain to Imlil, frequently walking on and through the freshly fallen snow. That certainly added a bit of excitement for people from Australia who rarely see snow. We also passed through and around more earthen villages where the houses blend in with the rocky mountain slopes, through orchards or cherry and walnut trees, across rustling streams. It was a very pleasant walk in the sunshine, with the hot egg tagine providing an ideal reward at the end.
Now I just need to get back and do some more walking in the mountains as it is such an inspiring place. Mind you, it might not be too quiet when I go with a group of students in early June!